Monday, February 21, 2011

ochs documentary

Yesterday I drove to Wellfleet Massachusetts--a town close to Provincetown on Cape Cod. I took the ride to watch a documentary on the life of Phil Ochs that was playing at a Wellfleet theater. Wellfleet is a good two hour ride from my home in Waltham, but the documentary--out since early January--is only playing in certain places and will not get closer to Boston until the middle of March.

I had read on the website that the theater was near the Wellfleet Post Office, a spot I know well as I have spent some time--as many Bostonians do--on the Cape during the summertimes. The Wellfleet Post Office is set off the side of what is called the mid cape highway. It is adjacent to a general store that makes one think of very small towns in America. I had not remembered a theater in the area, but I thought one must have been built recently.

I arrived at about 130 for the 2pm show, pulled into the small cluster of stores where the post office still is, and saw nothing that approached a theater. I went into the general store which still in 2011 looks like it could have been taken from a 1940s photo of any rural part of this country. Two people were sitting having coffee in the otherwise empty general store. I asked about the location of the theater. The proprietor--a young fellow who seemed half asleep or sour--repeated "The theater" somewhat disdainfully. He then asked me what was playing there. I told him that the theater was showing a documentary on the life of Phil Ochs.

"Who is he?" he wanted to know.

When I first started my now pushing 40 year stint as a college professor, nearly all my students knew who Phil Ochs was. I noticed over the first ten years of teaching that fewer and fewer did. Once in the early 80s I asked a large lecture class of about 100 and three students raised their hands. I found out subsequently that one of these three thought I had asked about someone else.

So in the early 80s, if this population was representative, about 2 percent of college students knew about Phil Ochs--a hero to many in the late 60s. Now, in 2011, I think half the faculty at my institution would not be able to place him.

At the theater--a modern building next to a new post office and a Dunkin Doughnuts-- which might explain the empty general store and the sour proprietor a half mile away-- there were about 60 people milling about ready to see the documentary. Nearly all were my vintage. During the showing they watched with appreciation the story of Ochs while listening to his songs.

When Nixon and Kissinger appeared on the screen, 60 something folks who looked like they might tell their children to "mind their manners" in a different context, hissed quite naturally, as if the hissing simply oozed from them at the site of a nemesis. At the end of the documentary there was applause, less for the documentary I believe, and more for Ochs himself and the era.

I milled around the lobby afterwards to hear the talk. One woman said she "was there then" meaning I think Greenwich Village when Ochs started his career. Others referred to him as "Phil" not it seemed to me because they were really friends, but because they had become so immersed in his music that he had become, in essence, an intimate from a distance.

Many clips from Ochs's songs were part of the documentary. The one that keeps surfacing in my consciousness today is from his song "Changes." If there had been background music in the post show theater lobby while the 60 year olds from the sixties clustered and reminisced the following lyrics from "Changes" would have been heard over the subdued conversations.

"Scenes of my young years were warm in my mind,Visions of shadows that shine.Til one day I returned and found they were the victims of the vines of changes...Passions will part to a strange melody. As fires will sometimes burn cold.Like petals in the wind, we're puppets to the silver strings of souls, of changes."

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Book of Ruth/review

One problem or benefit I receive from reading books is that while in the book I tend to think and even talk like the main character or narrator. I don't know how atypical this is, but it happens on a regular basis as long as I become immersed in the book.

It is a benefit most of the time, but not most recently. I read a very good but extraordinarily depressing novel called The Book of Ruth. It is by the same woman, Jane Hamilton, who wrote A Map of the World which is an excellent novel that was made into a good movie as well. The Book of Ruth depicts life for a young woman named Ruth who marries a young man named Ruby and lives in poverty with her bitter mother named May. I wanted to finish the book at least in part to get myself out of this drafty house in Illinois with a misanthrope for a mother and a going nowhere spouse.

Hamilton has the characters spot on in so many scenes that a reader, or at least I, marvels at how clearly, and in the case of the three main characters, multidimensionally she draws the characters. I think those people who have lived lives in poverty with no way out, might find the book a little too close to home for comfort. This was not my upbringing so I just found the book to be so sad that I wanted to urge Ruth to somehow scram and take me out of there with her.

If you would prefer not to be depressed for the days it will take you to read this 328 page book, I will nutshell the essence of it by including an excerpt that appears on page 316. The narrator, Ruth, says that she has given up on talking with the reverend about her travails, "there is no use explaining that you have to learn where your pain is. You have to burrow down and find the wound, and if the burden of it is too terrible to shoulder you have to shout it out; you have to shout for help. My trust, even down in that dark place I carry, is that some person will come running. And then finally the way through grief is grieving. There is nothing like lying down to bawl and choke, and then rolling over so the tears can drip out of your ears..."

A barrel of laughs this book was not.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I know those guys

Yesterday afternoon a high school buddy who went to Hofstra left a voice mail for me at home. He was watching Hofstra play Northeastern University, my employer, and wanted to know if I was watching the game. Judging by the message and an e-mail he sent when he did not get me in by phone, my pal was very excited about the Hofstra Northeastern game.

I wasn't home yesterday because--in what has become an annual expedition--several Albany college buddies met in the state capitol of New York and went to see the Albany Great Danes play an America East basketball game.

What prompted the Albany alums' rendezvous was less the basketball game and more the comraderie we have enjoyed when we reconnect. Still we made sure to get to the gym before the opening tipoff, and were relieved when the home team-- for the first time in our four years of having so rendezvoused--prevailed with a 62-59 victory.

It was a decent, but not packed crowd at the Albany arena last night. There was a good deal of howling for the home team. This despite the fact that last night in Albany was a terrible driving day. One of the worst I've ever experienced. The roads from Boston to Albany were fine, but it started to rain/sleet mid afternoon and then by the 7 pm gametime, it was like ice skating on the highways. Spectators after parking their cars slid, as opposed to walked, to the arena.

You don't need to go much beyond my experience of yesterday to see evidence of the lure of sport in our society. My high school pal, a very successful 60 year old accountant, is thrilled that his alma mater might defeat Northeastern in a Colonial Athletic Association contest. And maybe 3000 fans skate to a basketball game in Albany New York to watch a .500 college team play another .500 college team in the America East.

It was a gas seeing my old buddies in Albany. After the game we went to a restaurant and regaled one another with tales about our youth and I experienced, not for the first time, the therapeutic value of laughter. We were howling repeatedly making a scene of ourselves, but we tipped the waiter very well for his endurance while we joyfully reminded one another of our history.

But there was a sad aspect to the evening as well. Our pal Brian had secured the tickets for the game and we had terrific seats just to the left of the really terrific seats of the season ticket holders. I looked over to that bunch, and thought to myself--those guys look old. Then, slowly I began to recognize several of those seated there. The "old guys" were contemporaries, people who had gone to college with me and had stayed in the Albany area. I know those old guys that looked like old guys because I am one of them.

One of the bunch of us who meet annually is still in touch with some of the old guys in the season ticket section. And it was sad to hear him tell us, how this one is having some health issues, and how that one would have been here but had a stroke. One fellow who had been a star on the teams when I was a freshman is battling cancer, not for the first time.

Laughing as an adult--like a child might--is great therapy. Cheering enthusiastically for sports teams--as a child might--can purge the tensions within us. Remembering our mortality will allow us to enjoy the time we have and not squander our time away childishly.